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Reading Harrison's account of conceptual art

Apr 14, 2002

My view of the Art & Language group was first received through second- or third-hand stories by students at Coventry University (some 20 years after the emergence of the group) who spoke of the movement with awe ('the only big time for Coventry School of Art & Design') mixed with the loathing of the (rightly) punished. They referred vaguely to a regime of terror, relating somewhat improbably that 'they' did not shy away from perusing studios and removing (or destroying?) paintings, and generally created an atmosphere where every painter was made to feel uncomfortable. In teaching and in students' work, there was no reference to and certainly no trace of their practice. Where is the alternative account?

Considering the limp horror of toughtless painting that had recovered its ground, the radical stance of A&L sounded interesting, but I didn't follow up its history then. The thing to be done then was to indulge in the ramifications and expressive richness of 'multimedia', coding the beholder into 'interactive' scenarios. I guess the bottom line was 'trap and impress'. Among the more receptive, the term 'multimedia' and its common connotations had by then become a dirty word even before it entered the headlines at the beginning of the nineties.

I am now reading Charles Harrison's "Essays on Art & Language" which is quite different in tone and sharpness of content from the open, diverse and literally laissez-faire account by Lucy Lippard in "Six years: the dematerialization of the art object..".

Harrison: Indeed it might be said that what Postmodernist forms of art actually do - insofar as they are distinguishable form Modernist forms - is to take those 'practices of negation' by which the complex anxieties and uncertainties of modern culture have been rendered into Modernist art, and make from them the materials of an unreflective and self-satisfied celebration. If this is a sustainable view, what we are contemplating is not so much a culture of reaction as a culture of revenge.


So who is being revenged upon whom? Behind the distracting screen of fears and fantasies which the ruling class constructed out of the forecasts of Marx, can it be that a revolution of a different order has actually been achieved? Has the foreground of art (as of political debate) finally been claimed by that constituency of power-crazed petit-bourgeois lumpens to which Modernists (..) have for more than a century now directed their scorn?

Harrison's account repeatedly stresses the different position into which A&L pose the spectator, the 'beholder' of modernist art.

(..a link missing here..)

...to taunt the spectator with allusions to linguistic, historic or analytical-philosophical complexes of which he or she, more often than not, will not have had first-hand experience to furnish a background for understanding; and thereby to induce one of several possible responses:

  1. to enter the discourse on the terms of the artist, catching up like a mature student undergoing secondary education, in order to reconstruct the first-hand intellectual context on which the artwork (or the art-historic, political, stylistic account which explains and thereby justifies it) is based;
  2. to treat the assertions on display as a kind of language game, as tokens of a thought process without the need for referential grounding (e.g., taking references to Wittgenstein at face value without verifying their authenticity or original context); which amounts to the peer recognition of an artistic gesture and implies a certain disregard of the conditions of intelligibility en lieu;
  3. to engage, somewhat unprepared, in a meta-discourse extending to the ethics of artistic production, a meta-discourse that takes its starting point from precisely the intellectual provocation entailed in the infuriating experience of failing to live up to a high-brow and at the same time mocking discourse that consciously camouflages its epistemic background and intentionality - or treats these as instrumentalized parameters, 'up for grabs'.

Note added 03 Feb 2003:

Re-reading this text after some time, I hardly understand what I have written above. Harrison's discourse or style must have been infective, without lending the same clarity or conciseness to my own words.

In the essays, the starting point, the intellectual field and the recursive reflections leading on a crooked path towards a possibly adequate approach are lucidly explained. Since Harrison's text reflects its own constructive and apologetic role and the author's position as peer of the A-L group, it emancipates the reader to relate to account and referents on his or her own terms (of course an initial sting of interest is necessary - the reader who is turned off by the art discussed will not be willing to follow the contorted rationale of its production). In that sense, the text is congruent with its claim that A-L's intended 'audience' was and is one of dedicated peers who reflect or sublate A-L's production in their own work.

The exasperation at identifying a feasible position of the artist becomes evident, the hatred directed towards the post-modernist short-circuit and market game understandable. The argument is so convincing that it becomes difficult to conceive any alternative to A-L's gestures of oblique citation, repeated failure, tortured renderings and reflections, erasures and anti-estheticism. They seem plain 'reasonable'.

It is not a recent development that the artistic or literary practice emancipates itself from a naive relationship to an external audience (regardless whether the intention is to please, to surprise or to educate) and by the same token, becomes highly self-reflexive and indirect, reacting to other positions within the artistic and literary field. Taking the example of Flaubert reacting to the literary field of his time, Bourdieu has described in detail the genesis of increasing autonomy (Les règles de l'art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire. Paris 1992).

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